Friday, March 25, 2016

In praise of...The Blacklist

While a lot of the country, if not the world, sits back at 9 on Thursdays to watch Scandal, I get my fix of action, adventure and mystery with The Blacklist, possibly the best show on television right now.

Like many, I thought the premise of James Spader playing a super villain mastermind was kookythey're totally going for a Lex Luthor thing with that bald headbut he's actually brilliant as Raymond "Red" Reddington. Reddington, a former Naval Intelligence Officer, inexplicably betrayed his country in the early Nineties and has gone on to become one of the most wanted men in the world. Just as inexplicably, Reddington turned himself in with the offer to help an FBI task force catch other super criminals- the Blacklist- but only if he can operate as a free man and, most importantly, if he can work with newbie FBI profiler Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone). But why?

Just one of the many messes Red's gotten Liz into
In between his eccentric, seemingly non sequitur tangents that make everyone who works with him feel like they're trapped with their crazy uncle, the outlines of what Red is trying to accomplish are starting to become clearer. While it first seemed that he was merely disrespecting the "honor among thieves" (is that a thing?), it became clear that 1) he was being hunted by some very powerful people and 2) he was trying to take them down before they got to him. Since those people included not only rival criminal bosses but also highly placed government officials, it was only a matter of time before everyone he and Liz worked with were going to be endangered as well.

But why does Red insist on working with Liz? From the outset, the best fan theory has been that Red is Liz's father, and every time he protests that he's not, it seems like the show is still leaving the door open for that possibility. Yes, the big reveal last seasonSPOILER ALERT (but so is this whole post)is that Red rescued Liz as a small child after she shot her father dead, but the scars we saw on Red's back at the end of that episode just might link him to the fire Liz remembers her father rescuing her from earlier. Regardless, we finally know that Liz's biological mother was a legendary Soviet spy and that she and Red were, at the very least, close. If he's not her father, then why is he going to such extraordinary lengths to protect her?

How extraordinary? Tom Keen, Liz's ex-husband, was posing as an elementary school teacher but was in fact hired by Red to watch over her. When he went off script and wanted to see her romantically, Red fired him, which necessitated Tom going over to rival super criminal, Berlin. Liz was happily oblivious to all of this until Tom had murdered at least three people. Needless to say, this caused a huge rift between Red and Liz, especially when Tom killed yet again while in Liz's captivity...but this time to protect her. (You had to see the whole thing.)

"Tom" really doesn't look like someone who could kill several people with his bare hands...
Make no mistake: this is a crazy, convoluted show and the twists are unbelievable. What makes it work (in addition to my confidence that the writers actually know where they're going) are the consistently amazing performances of Spader and Boone. At this point, we expect Spader to do a good job with a crazy role (and, honestly, this is probably among his most straight forward), but kudos to Boone for being able to match him in every scene. Spader may be the mystery at the core of the show, but Boone is the detective we're following as she sorts it out.

Those two are the stars, but the rest of the cast is just as good: Diego Klattenhoff is Keen's tightly wound partner Donald Ressler, Harry Lennix is her honest but compassionate boss Harold Cooper ; Mozhan Marno is Samar Navabi, a former Mossad agent whom Red recruited for Liz's task force; Amir Arison is Aram Mojtabai, the earnest technical expert; Hisham Tawfiq is Dembe Zuma, Red's right-hand man and foster son who is a survivor of human trafficking; and Ryan Eggold is Liz's true love ex-husband, con man Tom. (The list of villains and recurring allies is too long to go into, but they're almost all stellar.) Through the course of the show, we've gotten glimpses into almost everyone's complicated lives outside of their jobs; as surprising as some of the stories can be, know that every human connection you see is an opening for one of Red's enemies to exploit.

As if this group wouldn't have enough problems without Reddington...
The best perk Dembe enjoys working for Red? Actually getting Red to shut up on occasion.
I have no idea where this is going, but I'm enjoying the ride so much that I'm willing to be surprised. The last time this happened? Mad Men.

Almost every episode, I marvel that this show exists: a smart action series with a female lead and a diverse cast that doesn't play to stereotypes on a major American television network. If this is an alternate universe, just leave me here.